Senate set to pass sweeping overhaul of workplace sexual misconduct law
The legislation ends the use of forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment and assault claims. According to lawmakers, more than 60 million Americans are subject to these provisions in employment contracts.
“This will help us fix a broken system that protects predators and corporations and will help end the era of survivors being silenced,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who is co- sponsor of legislation.
The bill was originally introduced in 2017 in the context of the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has brought to light these types of legal provisions in employment contracts, which prevent victims from suing their perpetrators, confining them instead to often secret practices. , costly procedures that many believe favor business.
“The arbitration system is quite skewed in favor of the company, and to take a job, I don’t think you should have to give up your day in court if you claim something untoward happened to you” , said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is also a co-sponsor of the bill.
Lawmakers from both houses of Congress worked for more than four years to pass this important measure revising national laws regarding the rights of victims of sexual harassment and assault. It was introduced by Graham, Gillibrand and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, as well as Democratic Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, in an impassioned speech to the Senate on Wednesday, said the significant change was “long overdue.”
“Today, we can no longer ignore that forced arbitration has proven to be extremely harmful in matters of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” the New York Democrat said. “When workers, almost always women, are abused or harassed by their employers, forced arbitration immediately limits their options for redress. The game is against them from the start, and so the abusers are rarely face real responsibility.”
Arbitration clauses included in millions of contracts
Arbitration clauses have long been common practice, included in millions of employment contracts. The clause limits legal options for employees who experience sexual harassment and assault and makes it difficult for companies and employers to hold themselves accountable for wrongdoing. Arbitration can be very expensive, which also imposes a heavy burden on workers and does not allow for the possibility of redress.
“More than 60 million Americans are subject to forced arbitration clauses in the workplace, preventing them from choosing how to seek justice for wrongful and abusive treatment,” said Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of the state of Washington, co-sponsor of the bill. “Survivors should have the ability to use their voice as they see fit.”
Gillibrand said such clauses “are especially prevalent in low-wage fields and industries with a disproportionate number of women of color.”
“These clauses leave women who cannot afford to challenge their employers without any recourse,” Gillibrand added. “Survivors deserve a real chance for justice.”
Critics also point to how the process is conducted in secrecy, which prevents victims from speaking publicly about wrongdoing and pursuing class action lawsuits against employers.
“There’s nothing wrong with refereeing as long as it’s free and fair and on an equal footing,” Graham said. “Arbitration has its place, but these clauses in the contracts…that millions of Americans sign every day, I don’t think are on equal footing.”
Once enacted, the legislation would override any forced arbitration clauses in current sexual assault or sexual harassment contracts, allowing victims to take their case to court. Companies will be prohibited from writing these clauses in contracts in the future.
However, any case previously settled by forced arbitration will remain closed.